‘Fit and proper persons’: the Birmingham election, 1832

The Great Reform Act of 1832 enabled Birmingham to return, for the first time, two Members of Parliament. The elections were organised somewhat differently then, taking place over several weeks, in this case between December 1832 and January 1833. Nominations of ‘fit and proper persons’ were made and polling would take place a few days later. Although the Great Reform Act had also extended the franchise, there were still very few people who qualified to vote. This new legislation is sometimes called ‘the £10 franchise’, because only those householders who paid an annual rent of at least £10 qualified. And of course, women were not allowed to vote however wealthy they might be. It is estimated that around 7% of the population were allowed to take part in this election. Of far greater importance were the changes introduced that gave growing, industrialised towns the opportunity to Parliamentary representation for the first time.

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Lithograph 1832 ‘ The Meeting of the Unions on Newhall Hill’

Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield had both been part of the movement for extending the franchise. Attwood had founded the Birmingham Political Union, the first political union in Britain. Other towns and cities quickly followed suit and soon a movement became established. The ‘monster meetings’ held at Newhall Hill in Birmingham captured the public imagination and tensions began to escalate. From 1831, serious rioting broke out across the country (Bristol and Nottingham were amongst the worst) and fears of revolution began to spread. There is some debate about whether these protests prompted the move for Parliamentary reform. It seems to me very likely that there was a necessity to try and placate the people and that the Great Reform Act was a (fairly tame) attempt to do just that. Nevertheless, this was a move to a sort of democracy.

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On  Wednesday December 12th, 1832  Schofield and Attwood were nominated, unopposed, as ‘fit and proper persons’ to represent the borough of Birmingham. The following account is taken from the Birmingham Journal of December 15th, 1832:

Birmingham Election


On Wednesday last the election of two burgesses to serve in Parliament for this borough took place at the Public Office. Temporary Hustings were erected in the front of the building for the accommodation of the candidates and their immediate friends. By nine o’clock, the hour fixed for the nomination, Moor-street was completely filled, from the Bull Ring to Carrs-lane, with a dense mass of people. At the hour named, the High Bailiff and the Low Bailiff, with Thomas Asquith Esq. and Joshua Scholefield Esq., accompanied by their separate committees, appeared in the hustings, and immediately commenced the preparatory proceedings. The precept and the bribery acts having been read, and the customary oaths administered, John Simcox Esq., the High Bailiff, called upon the electors to nominate two burgesses as fit and proper persons to represent them in Parliament. The call of the High Bailiff was received with waving of hats and cheering, which lasted for a considerable time. 

There were then some long speeches from various people in the hustings. These were grand declarations, perhaps fitting for the occasion of a first election; references were made to Sampson and the Philistines, to ‘Liberty’ and to the ‘great United Britannic Nation’ of which Birmingham was now decidedly a part. The formal nominations were made – Mr. T. W. Hill nominated Attwood, John Betts seconded the motion. George Muntz – who would also go on to be an MP – nominated Scholefield, seconded by Thomas Clarke. All through the speeches and nominations, great cheers from the crowd were reported.  Thomas Attwood concluded by thanking his fellow townsmen for the friendly and generous confidence they had reposed in him; and he retired from the hustings wishing all manner of liberty and prosperity, and happiness, to them and their children forever. After which, Attwood left immediately for Walsall, to support his son, De Bosco Attwood, who was standing for election there. The scene in Walsall had been altogether less cordial in the run up to the election; the military had been called in and several people were shot and wounded. Although is father had mustered a huge support from followers of the Birmingham Political Union, Attwood jnr. lost out to the Tory candidate, Charles Smith Forster.

Note: there are numerous books on the Great Reform Act, if you want to read more I would recommend Linda Colley’s ‘Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837’. There are fewer generally available books on the Birmingham Political Union, but if you can find it David Moss’s biography of Thomas Attwood has a lot of information and also Carlos Flick’s ‘Birmingham Political Union and the Movements for Reform in Britain, 1830-1839’ is quite informative. Local newspapers, including the one this article was taken from, are available to view free of charge at the Library of Birmingham, Local Studies as well as by subscription through the British Newspaper Archive.

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‘All the colours of the rainbow’: a local insight to the 1832 reformed Parliament

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In just a few short weeks the theatrics of election campaigning will be replaced, once more, with the theatrics of Parliamentary discourse. We have become familiar with the sometimes questionable behaviour of the House through televised debates. In the nineteenth century, Birmingham’s first returned MPs had something of a shock when they took their seats. At a Town Hall dinner in 1833, the two men, Thomas Attwood and Joshua Scholefield, gave some account of their first year’s experience. These were Birmingham men and Attwood in particular seemed to have, initially at least, felt some sense of awe at having found himself in the presence of the King. Although he couched his description in the language of reform, he was not shy at emphasising the ‘greatness’ of the company he had witnessed – dignitaries of the Church, others great officers who could fight in battles, a vast number skilled in law and many ladies of rank. However, Attwood questioned their ability to understand the difficulties of the ordinary people, adding that they looked down, as if from the altitude of a balloon, and consequently could scarcely see such a man as John Bull and his poor family travelling through all the hardships of trade and commerce. Attwood’s awe was tempered by his values.

Joshua Scholefield’s speech made no bones about his initial perception of the House, he could but not express his disappointment at the sort of company he had met with in the House of Commons. Scholefield said that he had hoped that the reformed Parliament would have comprised a set of men who wished to serve their country but declared that he had soon found them to be made up of the old leaven. Both men had been struck by the dress of the Members – there appears to have been no stuffy grey suits in the 1832 Parliament – they dressed in red and blue, with cocked hats and swords and exhibiting on the whole more the appearance of theatricals than senators collected to decide upon the destinies of a great nation.  I often think the same about our recent Parliaments when they heckle like a lot of school children! Attwood’s revelation that the MPs appeared in all the colours of the rainbow met with much laughter. Scholefield stated that the Members appeared ludicrous, but their conduct was mischievous.

This apparent mischief was of far greater concern to the local Members, particularly the manner in which some of the MPs voted on important issues. Scholefield said that their servility to the ministry was shocking revealing that it was no unusual thing to see them coming into the House at twelve o’clock at night (dressed up as he described) for the sole purpose of voting for the ministers citing one occasion when twenty three of these members came in from a levee, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, just in time to vote in the majority. Scholefield claimed that he was often left ashamed at their conduct, saying that the man who talked of the wants of the country was looked upon as mad; and when distress was said to exist it was flatly denied or inattentively considered. Attwood himself, with his Birmingham accent and tendency to drag his speeches out over the course of hours, would come in for such contempt later in the decade as he called for an extension of voting rights to all working men.

It may be of some regret (or prudence!) that there are no longer any cocked hats and swords in the House. But there are some things that clearly have not changed.

The quotes in this post are taken from the Birmingham Journal, December 14th, 1833. Birmingham’s local newspaper archive is available to view free of charge in the Local Studies Centre, fourth floor, Library of Birmingham – note that because of recent government cuts the library is no longer open on a Sunday.  Please support our libraries and archives.